Bayreuth Blues

The Wagners: The Dramas of a Musical Dynasty

by Nike Wagner, translated from the German by Ewald Osers and Michael Downes
Princeton University Press, 327 pp., $29.95


A few weeks ago the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth celebrated its 125th anniversary. To the world (perhaps I should say, to the opera world) at large, things have been going along relatively smoothly at Bayreuth since the centennial year 1976, when Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez created a sensation by their bouleversement of Der Ring des Niebelungen, and when the former director of the festival, Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of Richard, did likewise by celebrating her Nazi past on camera for Hans Jürgen Syberberg. For insiders, however, the interim has been marked by an intensifying struggle for the succession to the directorship held for fifty years by Winifred’s son Wolfgang. Often reported in the press, and only very recently resolved, this “soap opera,” as Nike Wagner calls it, forms the background for her impressive book The Wagners: The Dramas of a Musical Dynasty. She is a great-granddaughter of the composer and has been one of the claimants.

The dramas she tells about are of two kinds, literal and metaphorical. The first half of the book consists of brief essays on the Wagner operas. The second half is a concise and caustic history of the Wagner dynasty, a series of family dramas sometimes presented (more entertainingly than convincingly, it must be said) in parallel with tales from the Ring and the Grail. The English-language edition also includes a statement of intent that the author issued about a year ago in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, setting forth extensive changes she would promote to reinvigorate and modernize the festival. This was, no doubt, a final measure of desperation—

So, a manifesto to round off a family story? It was not premeditated that it should appear, either in this form or at this point, and by the time this book is published it will already have been overtaken by events.

In March the new director, her more conservative cousin Eva Wagner-Pasquier, was appointed as of 2002. Has the situation been resolved? Wolfgang refuses to step down, so the soap opera may be good for a few more episodes.

Eva is an opera manager with solid international credentials. Nike is described as a “music critic and cultural commentator”; she has a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and has written a book on Karl Kraus. With or without manifesto, The Wagners must be seen as an attempt—already, I am afraid, desperate—to establish her bona fides as an intellectual rather than a theater functionary.

I approached this book (as one approaches any book by any Wagner) with skepticism, but ended up being very impressed. The opening chapters—vignettes, really, rather than actual studies—focus on one particular aspect of each opera: Romanticism in Lohengrin, incest in the Ring, the peculiar humor of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. They rely rather heavily on Freudian interpretation, and like so many of the writings about this composer, they hardly ever deal specifically with the music. That said, I would recommend them seriously to anyone interested in the Wagner oeuvre. What Nike Wagner writes about the Ring, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal, in particular, is a good deal more intelligent, clear-eyed, and provocative than much else that has been turned out about these works recently.

Not that these vignettes resemble the paeans that one comes upon so very often in the literature. Nike Wagner links Parsifal directly to the sinister and ubiquitous tract Geschlecht und Charakter by Otto Weininger, well known to her from her studies of fin de siècle Vienna. Weininger’s obsession was the corruption of Aryan manhood by the equivalent pollutants woman and Jew—Kundry, in a word, the sexual predator and female Ahasuerus who had mocked Christ and whom Wagner, in Judaism in Music, had consigned, after conversion, to extinction, Untergang. And in a chapter bluntly entitled “Disquiet about Parsifal,” she complains that

the work’s carefully constructed ambivalence is abandoned wholesale at the end. Everything is ultimately forced into the unequivocal unity of Christian redemption, blessed by above: this undialectical “solution” of all conflicts in universal sacred harmony is the cause of our disquiet. It suggests that we have arrived at the end of the world, with only a shadowy and discreet reminder of the horrors overcome and the evil exorcised, in the death of the victim Kundry. The reign of good—without female participation—has begun….

I can share her disquiet on musical grounds, for while Wagner’s last opera is admired for the special subtlety of its work with leitmotifs, the fact is that leitmotifs parade in the most Mickey Mouse fashion when Parsifal arrives to heal Amfortas and illumine the grail (“Nur eine Waffe taugt,” “One weapon only serves”). It would have been trite enough if the hero came on and the orchestra presented his calling card—Debussy’s characterization of Wagner’s method. In the event we suddenly become aware of the old con man shaking cards out of his sleeve in rapid succession: the Grail—these classic labels are by the French musicologist Albert Lavignac—the Lance, Suffering (five times), the Promise, Parsifal, the Eucharist, Faith, the Lance again, the Cry to the Savior, the Promise, the Eucharist, and the Grail. This is more like an index to Parsifal than the “solution” to it that Nike Wagner is looking for.1

Her chapter on “New Bayreuth as Waste Disposal Plant” should be required reading for those many critics—Bernard Williams has joined them recently, and I have been there too2—who see Die Meistersinger as apolitical. Colonialism makes a striking context for the discussion of The Flying Dutchman—a concept associated with a production by Nike’s brother Wolf Siegfried. Many Wagnerians, I think, would have been happy to see the Bayreuth Festival in the hands of someone with the quality of mind of Nike Wagner.


However, some who admire Wagner feel considerable disquiet about the Bayreuth Festival in any shape or form. It offers a special affront, first of all, to those of us who value classical music yet detest the cult status it achieved in the nineteenth century and still maintains, to some extent, today. Temples, priests, vestments, and rites (concert halls, conductors, virtuosos, tails, standing ovations, and so on) promote submission rather than serious reception, repelling the young and many of the elderly too. More than a temple, the Festival Opera House was conceived as a mother church, a pilgrimage site (with the saint actually buried there) at which submission is expected and indeed exacted. Initiates sit in the dark on hard, cramped seats, their attention focused rigidly, by physical as well as psychological means, on rituals repeated, like memorial masses in a chantry, in saecula saeculorum.

And at Bayreuth, of course, the cult of art was inflated into something very much like a religion, not the vague aestheticism of the concert hall but doctrine articulated in national, racial, and ethical terms. Bayreuth is to Wagnerism as Rome is to Christianity—to mention another creed which Wagner, like his contemporaries Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy, meant to transform, with Parsifal, along his own lines. In Nike Wagner’s characteristically understated words,

Wagner regarded his theatrical revolution as both an allegory of, and a stimulant to the reshaping of German culture as a truly national art…. The continual repetition of Wagner’s works, the almost incredible continuity with which they have been staged—from the days of Ludwig II, across two World Wars, to the present—signals the continuity, simultaneously disturbing and reassuring, of a particular strand of German history.

Wagner’s fantasy of a national theater devoted to his own work and to his own notion of theater had indeed aroused the suspicion of German liberals as early as the mid-nineteenth century, and this turned to alarm by the time of Nietzsche’s recantation. After the composer’s death the festival continued under his widow Cosima, more Wagnerian than the Master himself. Cosima not only expanded the repertory to include more Wagner operas, but also opened it up to the full ideological amplification of that “particular strand of German history.” No mere house organ, like the Metropolitan Opera’s Opera News, the journal Bayreuther Blätter was a primary and very vicious medium for pre-Nazi and then Nazi ideology. Haus Wahnfried, the Wagner family pile, which had played host to Gobineau for months at a time, now welcomed Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who married a Wagner daughter and came to live there and minister to them like a family chaplain.

And then Adolf Hitler, who attributed the forging of National Socialism’s “spiritual sword” to Chamberlain, and who “saw himself as Wagner’s servant, disciple, executor,” as Alex Ross has remarked pithily—Hitler would find a house at his disposal on the grounds, and later an annex built onto it to accommodate his entourage (called the Führerbau). He was the beloved “Uncle Wolf” to the children, and a special friend if not a bit more to Winifred. An indication of the awe in which Hitler held the festival is the relative freedom he allowed Winifred in managing it, though toward the end of the war it was he who decided to keep it going, with only Die Meistersinger remaining in the repertory; this was for the recreation and edification of wounded veterans and the like, whether they liked it or not.

After the war Winifred was stripped of the directorship, but the festival was allowed to continue under her sons, Wieland and Wolfgang. This turned out to be a signal success for the Denazification Commission, for Wieland performed the unpredictable:

A circular acting area [modeled on the orchestra of the Greek theater], the use of light to link music to movement and colour, the simplification of costumes without any suggestion of a specific time or place, the transformation of characters from pseudo-human beings into symbols and the stripping away of sets and gestures inessential to the conceptual core of the work.3

All this was as resourceful in face of the material shortages at the time as it was inspired. Wieland depoliticized Wagner in a coherent series of operatic productions that rank among the most distinguished and impressive (and most beautiful, perhaps; I never saw one) in the history of the stage.

So far as I can determine, nobody at the time proposed that the festival, however blatant a symbol it had become of Nazi ideology, should be discontinued—as in fact had happened after World War I. The American occupation authorities, on the contrary, saw it as just the kind of German institution they wanted to resuscitate. A new Society of the Friends of Bayreuth, in which prominent ex-Nazis were generously represented, provided financial support.4 Wieland was one of a kind, however. After his death in 1966, with the accession of Wolfgang, productions began returning to the traditional accouterments of Valkyrie helmets, Nuremberg alleys, swans, and swords. Plenty of the Bayreuth faithful wanted to see and think about Wagner in the old ways.

Even more than Wieland’s pathbreaking Parsifal of 1951, perhaps, the key moment for Wieland’s “New Bayreuth” was his 1956 production of Die Meistersinger, an essay in abstraction divested of every naturalistic detail that might evoke Nuremberg of the 1530s, or Nuremberg of the 1930s. The famous nationalistic speech at the end, which brought wartime audiences to their feet, was virtually defanged in Wieland’s closed-up staging. For the first time, Nike Wagner tells us, boos were heard in the Festival Opera House. An emblem of today’s uneasy Bayreuth was Syberberg’s five-hour filmed interview with Winifred Wagner—Winifred, who kept quiet about her nostalgia for the 1930s for thirty years, until it all burst out in the centennial year like an underground river. It kept on gushing, at unpredictable intervals, until her death at the age of eighty-three a few years later.

Another cousin of Nike’s, Wolfgang’s son Gottfried, has harped on this. In his autobiography5 Gottfried tells, with much more honesty than self-understanding, or literary talent, of a wretched childhood and feckless youth crippled by Oedipal conflict. As a boy he became obsessed with the “secret” of Bayreuth’s past, which needless to say was never discussed, and which he obviously (and not entirely wrongly) identified with his father. In middle life Gottfried experienced a series of conversions: a new marriage, a new religion, a new ambience (Italy), and at last a mission in life as co-founder of the Post-Holocaust Dialogue Group, one of a number of such organizations that bring children of pre-war Germans together with children of Holocaust victims. He now lectures to anyone who will hear him about Wagner’s anti-Semitism and the commercial and political machinations at Bayreuth.

Though the destructive instinct of an irascible child is still recognizable in Gottfried, and he has other problems, he also has a sharp eye for backsliding and hypocrisy. A 1984 exhibit at Wahnfried on Wagner and the Jews was obviously a whitewash. Neo-Nazi skinheads rallied at Bayreuth in 1991. He complains that festival conductor Daniel Barenboim has taken it on himself, “in quite the Bayreuth style, to understate Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism.”6 Gottfried was conspicuously kept off the program for another hashing over of Wagner and Judaism in 1998, this time a somewhat tense conference of scholars from Germany, the United States, and Israel. Many besides Gottfried, of course, have decried the stonewalling by an increasingly Fafner-like Wolfgang, who should have given up the festival directorship years ago.

Stepping back, one can see only too easily how Wieland gave the immediate postwar era what it needed, namely Wagner without Wagnerism. The sardonic words spoken by Eva in Die Meistersinger, “Hier gilt’s der Kunst” (“It’s art that matters here”), made an apt epigraph for the New Bayreuth. In another era, what many Germans are looking for is not amnesia about Wagnerism but some kind of confrontation and coming to terms with it. Both Gottfried’s and Nike’s books must be seen against the background of this larger project. Furthermore, while the idea of depoliticizing Wagner, or opera, or music plain and simple may have made perfect sense in the intellectual climate of the 1950s, this is certainly not the case now. Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, Solomon Volkov’s book Testimony about Shostakovich, Beethoven and the Congress of Vienna, Ken Burns’s TV series Jazz—these days people are sniffing out ideology and politics in music and music theater of every kind.

Bayreuth can be seen as a sort of high-level institute (“Werkstatt Bayreuth”) for opera production, direction, and design in general: according to the English director Mike Ashland, who has a number of Wagner credits himself, writing in 1992,

Key productions [at Bayreuth] have become benchmarks for production worldwide, and the stagings of Wagner himself, of Wieland Wagner, Friedrich, Chéreau and Kupfer have had far-reaching influence on the entire operatic repertory on stage. The history of Wagner interpretation per se became something of a testing ground for the state of opera production in general.7

The post-Wieland productions he had in mind were Tannhäuser (1972) by the late Götz Friedrich, the Chéreau-Boulez Ring (1976), whose importance can hardly be overstated, and the Dutchman (1978) and Ring (1988) by Harry Kupfer. Today he would probably want to add the Lohengrin by Keith Warner (1999).

Note, however, that Friedrich and Kupfer have both produced more Wagner elsewhere than at Bayreuth, including three Ring cycles between the two of them.8 Robert Wilson has done Parsifal in Hamburg and Houston and Lohengrin in Berlin and New York. David Hockney designed, and Jonathan Miller staged, Tristan und Isolde for Los Angeles, and Nikolaus Lehnhoff produced a Ring for San Francisco, and so on. It is a mistake, and an ideologically driven mistake, to believe that Wagner depends on the Bayreuth Festival, whether or not this is the article of faith that has always kept his fractious family from falling apart completely.

Even Nike Wagner, who has written a very skeptical book about Bayreuth, feels that the institution must be saved to save Wagner. Like any agency dedicated to the work of a single person—like the Sigmund Freud Archives, for example; or, in the music world, the Beethovenhaus and Archiv at Bonn—Bayreuth has inevitable limitations as well as obvious advantages and powers. The continuity of Wagner production and Wagner reception depends on interaction between musicians, producers, and thinkers working both inside and outside of this particular fold.

As Bayreuth’s director for an unbelievable fifty years Wolfgang will be remembered not for his own string of echt-Bayreuth productions, which include two each of the Ring, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal, but for breaking with tradition and bringing in outside directors who have been undaunted by the Bayreuth mystique. This is one thing Nike Wagner will not acknowledge, a real blind spot in a view of Wolfgang that while harsh, though no more so than that of other, ostensibly more objective observers,9 stands out for the effort to understand as well as judge.


The first half of The Wagners consists of essays on the canon, as has already been said. The second half tells the history of the dynasty over four generations—those of Richard and Cosima, Siegfried and Winifred, Wieland and Wolfgang, and finally Nike, Eva, Gottfried, and several others born in the 1940s.

Lavish disfunctionality” is the English Wagnerian Michael Tanner’s term for the workings of this family. While it is clear that Nike Wagner has no qualms about washing dirty linen in public, and maybe dirtying it up some more, presumably her motives were a good deal more serious than that. Two things were incumbent on her in order to make a credible claim on the Bayreuth heritage: she had to show a considered commitment to the works of Wagner, and she also had to show herself prepared to acknowledge and engage with, if not exorcize, the dark side of that heritage, the dark side of Germany.

In this she may have been influenced by Gottfried, or even by his book, though hers could hardly be more different. Gottfried’s cri de coeur is all about himself. Nike is a mere shadowy presence in her own narrative, a dispassionate, dry account lit up by flashes of irony that probably owe something to her work on Karl Kraus. While most of her portraits are dark, as I have indicated, they are far from monochromatic, and she is capable of considerable nuanced sympathy for her subjects (though love is nowhere in the picture; Gottfried is better at that). Very smartly written and excellently translated, Nike’s baleful family saga is fascinating to read, well worth your time even if you hate Wagner.

That the fullest and most arresting portrait should be of Wieland Wagner comes as no surprise, since he is the one really significant family member after Richard, and since he was Nike’s father. She repeats a childhood mot that must have haunted the adult Wieland—he wished Uncle Wolf were his real father rather than an uncle—and she takes him severely to task for the designs for Die Meistersinger in the traditional nationalist manner that he produced in wartime, years after he had sketched what would later be his radical, sanitized Parsifal of 1951. As Hitler’s favorite, Wieland was deferred from military service (while Wolfgang went to the front and was badly wounded; on one occasion Hitler raved that one brother would head up the “theater of the West” and the other “the theater of the East”).

Wieland appears to have found out about Nazi realities only around 1944, and they sent him into a crisis of conscience. The rest of his life was wracked by a troubled search for self-realization. This drove him more and more to the left over the next decades, which exacerbated relations with his brother and co-director, to say nothing of the festival’s core constituency. For Nike, conflict between the brothers was the great cloud over Wieland’s existence.

She remembers his productions first from dancing in several of them and helping paint sets for another as a child. She celebrates the historic Parsifal, which played from 1951 to 1970, though it is said Wieland tinkered with it so much year after year that it practically became a new production; the radically new second Meistersinger of 1963; the second Ring, and indeed the whole run of Wagner operas from Rienzi on—for Wieland also worked extensively outside Bayreuth and his influence extended to opera houses around the world. At his untimely death at forty-nine he was mourned, she writes,

as the man who restored a measure of national pride in the German theater…a valuable German cultural export, whose unlikely achievement was to make Munich seem pallid by comparison with Bayreuth. More importantly still, he had made the world forget Hitler’s Wagner by replacing him with Wieland’s Wagner: he had abolished both the old, tradition-bound Bayreuth, and the wartime “Aryan citadel” Bayreuth, in favor of his own “New Bayreuth.” Without doubt, Wieland fully discharged the task imposed on him by his personal and historical position. He both cleansed and saved the work of Wagner, and the new West Germany duly recognized his merit.

Psychoanalysis, rather than philosophy, is Nike Wagner’s regular instrument for coping with dramatis personae, in life’s dramas as well as those on the stage. But for language to explain her father she turns to Hegel. The individual personifies the spirit of history, which proceeds dialectically from negativity to action; personal destiny emerges from the thrust and counterthrust of the archaic laws of family on the one hand and the moral imperatives of society and state on the other. Nike reels off the negativities without mercy: Wieland’s lifelong depression; his childhood tyranny over Wolfgang; his adolescent evasion of his “task” (he studied to be a painter); the practically murderous temper that flared in later years at rehearsals and elsewhere; the womanizing and the open six-year affair with Anja Silja, a very young singer in whom he found his ideal Senta (New York heard her last season in The Makropulos Case); his repudiation of those who helped him most, such as his teacher Kurt Overhoff and his wife (and Hitler), and indeed his bid in 1960 to defect from Bayreuth to Berlin.

American readers are not likely to feel at ease with Nike’s Hegelian terms, and we may also wonder whether Hegel would have expected to see them applied to Wieland Wagner, genius of the theater though he may have been. For his daughter, however, Wieland was not just a directorial genius. With all his negative qualities, he emerges as a tragic hero in a particular strand of German history. Perhaps for the author of this book the deepest of motivations was the abiding process of mourning:

It may seem to us that his life was unfinished and tragic, and that there was a premature and abrupt transition from the “becoming” of an unquiet consciousness to the “being” of a quiet death. In a philo-sophical sense, however, this does not mean that his self-realization had not been completed to a very high degree: he had succeeded, after all, in attaching his name to a moment in intellectual history.

  1. 1

    A creepy footnote to Parsifal: it has recently been observed that the symptoms described in the libretto for Amfortas’s wound (a non-healing lesion especially painful at night) and for its treatment (Arabian balm, baths) are both specific to tertiary syphilis—in case anyone was confused by Wagner’s upgrading of the wound from the groin (as in his medieval sources) to the side (as in the Gospels). See Linda and Michael Hutcheon, “Syphilis, Sin and the Social Order: Richard Wagner’s Parsifal,” Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 7, No. 3 (1995), pp. 261–276.

  2. 2

    Wagner and Politics,” The New York Review, November 2, 2000, p. 42. Weininger called Die Meistersinger “the essence of Germandom”; more explicitly than most comedies, this work celebrates the soundness of a community threatened by Wahn (delusion), from which—unlike most comedies—the disruptive (Jewish) element is excluded rather than incorporated.

  3. 3

    Frederic Spotts, Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival (Yale University Press, 1994), p. 216.

  4. 4

    Spotts, Bayreuth, p. 205.

  5. 5

    Gottfried Wagner, He Who Does Not Howl with the Wolf, translated by Della Couling, with a preface by Ralph Giordano (London: Sanctuary, 1999); in the US the same translation appears with a different preface, by Abraham J. Peck, under the gaudy title Twilight of the Wagners: The Unveiling of a Family Legacy (Picador USA, 1999).

    Many Wagners have delivered themselves of memoirs, diaries, or similar projects, as though bound to follow upon Richard’s famous My Life: in addition to Nike and Gottfried, they include Cosima, Siegfried, Wieland, his sister Friedelind, son Wolf Siegfried, and widow Gertrude, and notably Wolfgang: Acts: The Autobiography of Wolfgang Wagner, translated by John Brownjohn (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994).

  6. 6

    We must remember that Wagner’s kind of intellectual anti-Semitism was à la mode in the nineteenth century, and he cannot be held responsible for the actual atrocities committed half a century later by misusing his ideas,” from an interview with Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, Opera Monthly, May/June 1993, p. 10, cited in Gottfried Wagner, Twilight of the Wagners, pp. 255–256.

  7. 7

    Producing Wagner,” in Wagner in Performance, edited by Barry Millington and Stewart Spencer (Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 46–47.

  8. 8

    And pace Mike Ashcroft, the Bayreuth Ring was not Kupfer’s finest hour. The production was widely deplored at the time—with special acuity by Jonathan Lieberson in these pages (“Bombing at Bayreuth,” The New York Review, November 10, 1988).

  9. 9

    Such as Frederic Spotts; see his Bayreuth.